Here’s one way to get rid of plastic waste: Eat it. A new tabletop farm is designed to use mushrooms to break down plastic and turn it into a safe and even tasty snack.
“We wanted to work with material that has not been considered as food so far,” says designer Katharina Unger, who worked with Julia Kaisinger and biology researchers at Utretcht University on the project.
The Fungi Mutarium’s speculative design is a response to two global challenges. First, the world produces 280 million tons of plastic waste per year, and, at the same time, many regions are struggling to produce enough food for quickly growing populations.
“Farmers are increasingly dealing with extreme environmental conditions to produce food,” Unger says. “Fungi Mutarium is a projection of how new biotechnologies might be applied to grow edible material on so far harmful or even toxic waste material.”
The system sterilizes plastic trash with UV light, which helps start the degradation process. Next, the tiny pieces of plastic are placed in cups made of a jelly-like edible substance called agar. A few drops of fungi sprouts are piped in the cup and start to grow, digesting the plastic along the way. Eventually, the plastic is gone and the fungi-filled cup is ready for lunch.
“It’s ready to eat when there is no more visible plastic material inside,” says Unger. “At that point it is overgrown with fluffy white mycelium.”
The result tastes, unsurprisingly, like mushrooms, although the designers have also created recipes to flavor the agar cups. One version is inspired by Japanese food, another is a sweet-and-sour mango and carrot combination, and a dessert version uses chocolate and peach puree. Specially designed utensils let diners scrape the fungi from the cup, slice it up, and suck it through a straw.
Though ordinary plastic is obviously inedible, the design is based on research that shows how different types of mushrooms can fully digest plastic. In their prototype, the designers worked with two types of fungi, the oyster mushroom and the “split gill,” which remain edible even as their root-like mycelium suck up plastic.
“The fungi digests the plastic without accumulating the compounds,” explains Unger. Unlike metals, which the mushroom would store–making it dangerous to eat–plastics are degraded. Still, the designers admit that more research needs to happen before it’s clear that something like this would be safe to eat.
For now, the design is just a concept, showing how the modular glass domes used to process the plastic could be used in small factories or on farms. The designers hope to provoke new ideas–and push forward the idea that mushrooms can help us deal with waste.
“Avoiding the production of overloads of plastic waste is certainly the most important matter,” Unger says. “There is no single solution to get rid of these materials in our environment. Fungi can, however, play a very important role.”